Mank, starring Gary Oldman, is a luminous take on how films are made

Mank (M, 132 minutes)

5 stars

Hollywood is, like Ouroboros, a beast that likes to eat itself. Endlessly fascinated with its own culture, it often subjects audiences to films about the film business. Sometimes it is self-indulgence, sometimes brilliance, and sometimes both.

Gary Oldman excels in Mank. Picture: Netflix

Gary Oldman excels in Mank. Picture: Netflix

Think Spike Jonze's Adaptation, Robert Altman's The Player, Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain, Damien Chazelle's La La Land, the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.

David Fincher, director of Se7en, Panic Room and Benjamin Button, adds a luminous new film into this company of Hollywood's love story with itself.

Shot in black and while, edited in authentic-era fashion, it peeks behind the curtain of the late 1930s and early 1940s-Los Angeles movie game, as gossip circulates about MGM's expensive Wizard of Oz, rumoured to imminently bring about the studio's demise.

I remember the same Cassandras gossiping the aisles of the Tower Records and Book Soup in the spring of 1997 about James Cameron's Titanic, on which half the town was working late into the night on the finishing touches.

This film, however, is about another legendary and career-making Bermuda-Triangle of rumour and innuendo, Orson Welles's epic tale Citizen Kane.

"Mank" is Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the wildly talented writers hired into Hollywood from the New York literary scene in the 1930s. Formerly a stalwart of the famed Algonquin Round Table in his days as drama critic for The New York Times and the New Yorker, Mankiewicz took a pay cheque that would be impressive even today to work for Louis B. Mayer at MGM.

As the film opens, we meet Mank (Gary Oldman), as his friends refer to him, wandering through film sets, chatting to many and climbing up onto a fake burning pyre to light a cigarette for actress pal Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whom billionaire boyfriend William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) is directing in another film, hoping to make a star of her.

Amanda Seyfried is a revelation in Mank. Picture: Netflix

Amanda Seyfried is a revelation in Mank. Picture: Netflix

This is one of a number of flashback memories we come to across the film, set within a seven-year frame but focused primarily across three months in 1940 when Mank was bed-ridden following a car accident and churning out script pages for the untitled next feature film for radio and theatre star Orson Welles (Tom Burke).

Welles has holed the recuperating Mank up in a ranch in the countryside with secretary Susan (Lily Collins) to scribe Mank's increasingly erratic booze and Seconal-addled thoughts into script-form.

Mankiewicz and Welles shared the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Citizen Kane, the only Oscar the film won, but Hollywood legend has long debated its true authorship. Working from a screenplay by his own father Jack, director David Fincher comes down firmly on the side of Mankiewicz as the film's provenance, and as we watch Susan help Mank work the screenplay into shape, we step back into the handful of Mank's memories that help form that shape.

Amanda Seyfried's turn as Marion Davies is charming and sly, and I augur a few big award nominations in her future for it.

Davies was the showgirl who won Hearst's heart and he plowed millions of his own money into making a star of her, though her fame as an arm-piece sadly played a more prominent role. As Seyfried plays her, there is a lot more to this clever woman than Dorothy Parker's witty poem once jotted in the guest book of Hearst's luxury yacht, would have us believe: Upon my honour I saw a Madonna/ Standing in a niche / Above the door of the prominent whore / Of a prominent son of a bitch

Recalling Parker's witty slay seems especially fitting here, as Mank is about an artist who, like Parker, apparently loved to bite the hand that fed him. Film audiences are no strangers to Gary Oldman's ability to disappear inside a character, and Mank shows again what a consummate professional he is. It is a brilliant study of a complex man, smart and self-destructive.

Early in the film we enjoy an extended scene in which Mank is taking a lend of the boss who is paying him and his pals far too much money for the work they do, in the middle of an economic depression. He is unrepentant.

Audiences will read much into the screenplay's observations of parallels between our own political milieu and those of the late 1930s, between Hearst and the Murdochs, with a dinner party conversation at Hearst castle about Hitler not being taken seriously echoing many conversations over the past four years.

One of the signs of advanced thinking is to be able to hold two differing opinions in your mind at the same time. Like the physic's conundrum about Schrodinger's cat, I can see that Mank is both fascinating and boring. If your interests lie in cinema, politics, performance, media studies, or European and American history, this is a work of lustrous brilliance. But I can also see that for everyone else, it might be like watching paint drying.

The film is enjoying a short cinema release before its Netflix debut in mid December. If you can make it to the cinema, the immersive experience will double your enjoyment.

This story Meta-Hollywood at its sharpest first appeared on The Canberra Times.